As cultural phenomena, popular music concerts, Christian evangelical crusades and Muslim ‘lectures’ are more or less the same. There is always a celebrity figure, there are always fans, there is always hyping the event and promotion (posters, billboards and media promo), and there is the tendency to be considered ‘cooler’ after attending. The main difference is the content. It is like having a tank; some use it so deliver water, others kerosene, and others diesel. Recently Nigeria has witnessed a frenzy in Muslim celebrity speakers, featuring such platinum speakers as Zakir Naik, Mufti Menk, Khaled Yasin etc.
Consumerism has long infiltrated Islam, shortly after colonisation via capitalism. These popular Muslim lectures are a product of a consumerist culture, where the product is lectures, and the sustaining myth is that listening to more lectures leads to being a better Muslim. Compare that to the consumerist phenomenon where the product is gadgets (phones, headphones, watches etc.) and the sustaining myth is that owning these gadgets would make you cooler, or rarely more efficient. In the case of gadgets, there is a veil of deception because many are either unwilling to admit, or are unaware zombies, that they are aiming to be cooler/hip/current. Whereas in the case of Muslim lectures, many Muslims are quick to defend that they are indeed performing righteous deeds which would lead to their righteous transformation.
But how true is the sustaining myth; are these lectures making better Muslims? That requires a statistical answer and criteria for evaluating better Muslims. Since the power of any myth lies in the ability of the myth to be propagated and believed, then we can assume they believe they are becoming better Muslims. Perhaps we can count on a psycho-social placebo effect.
Now what is the effect of Muslims believing they are becoming better Muslims? In other words, what is the effect of consumers who believe they are becoming cooler or more effective? In addition to contentment in keeping up with their practice, even at the expense of more useful practices, we can say that the Muslim consumer would continue consuming, more and more.
Having celebrated Sheikhs is not new to Islam’s tradition, but I contend that having celebrity Sheikhs is a new phenomenon because celebrity as we know it today is a product of consumerism; energised by capitalism. Sufi Islam is more accommodating of celebrity culture given its aggrandisement of Sheikhs and donations. On the other hand Salafi Islam, being similar to protestant movement, is very vocal about its disapproval on aggrandisement of Sheikhs which they consider as a serious threat to monotheism. To the Salafi strand, sainthood is deification, and so ascribing divinity to them, or contradicting the sole monopoly of God’s omnipotence. So it is quite interesting when a common theme in lectures given by Salafi-inclined Sheikhs is the denouncing of celebrity status; often in the catch phrase “There is no celebrity in Islam!”. This is pure irony!
It appears those preaching against celebrity status of Sheikhs forget one key fact, which is not simply that they are celebrities, but that they are being listened to precisely because they are celebrities. What is the effect of a celebrity Sheikh who constantly reminds his fans (audience) that he is no celebrity, and that there should be no celebrities in Islam? Some would be quick to call it hypocrisy, and that would be justified, but not charitable.
I would like to think they do not understand the complexity of celebrity as a product of culture; as would be elucidated by cultural studies. They would then appreciate that cultural products are a result of interaction. They would also know that their actions have more impact to culture than their spoken words; such that even if they organise a specific event to discourage celebrity status, the more lasting impact is that they were able summon their fans privileging their celebrity status rather than what they were able to tell their fans. They would then appreciate why the Prophet (SAW), on many occasions, does an action before explaining it, making him a conscious culture producer; walking before the talking.
The situation of those celebrity Sheikhs then becomes one of saying one thing consciously, and doing and promoting its opposite unconsciously. It is not different from those who seek to justify their actions by first saying “I do not mean to justify so and so, but…”. Or those who excuse their actions by saying “I am not trying to provide an excuse for my action, but…”. This self fulfilling deception comes in several varieties.
Others criticise the phenomenon of celebrity Sheikh as an unnecessary expense because inviting these celebrities is quite expensive due to logistics; because I don’t think they charge for their lectures. In addition to plane tickets and accommodation, the venues are typically worth millions of Naira for rent; although the venues may be donated or sponsored by a ‘big person’. The criticism actually has two parts: first, organising these events are expensive; second, why not make use of local Sheikhs instead. Understandably, many have no issue with the first part because they understand that transport and accommodation is not free. The second criticism is often presented as a variation of the import-vs-local debate, where the critics say: why don’t we patronise local Sheikhs as we do international celebrity Sheikhs. Which would mean creating local celebrity Sheikhs, if that criticism is taken seriously. Alas, the criticisms are not at celebrity Sheikh culture but about celebrity Sheikh consumption.
Perhaps the Celebrity Sheikh is above criticism. After all he would be the hardest on himself.
Some celebrity Sheikhs however embrace their celebrity-ness, and simply put effort in humility. But they understand, I believe, that there is now celebrity in Islam, and they are it. But I wonder if they appreciate how entangled their celebrity status is with consumerism of Islam’s knowledge, and what that does to Muslim consumers.